It’s never to early to sneak a peek at the upcoming NHL off-season, especially when it comes to free agency. The question on everyone’s mind is: Who will be the NHL’s big spenders this summer? I am going to break down the teams with cap space and maneuverability and what players they could be targeting come July 1st.
The Big NHL Spenders This Summer
The Sabres are not that far away from being a playoff team and also in strong position when it comes to their cap. They have 14 players signed for next season at $47.1 million. The key free agent Buffalo has is a restricted one, Rasmus Ristolainen. The talented 21-year old blueliner is coming off his entry-level contract, as well as a very productive year (41 points).
Two of the areas Buffalo can attack is producing more offense (25th in the league in goals scored this year) and getting a little bit more experience and leadership in their locker room. Three players who become unrestricted free agents that fit the bill are David Backes, Frans Nielsen and Loui Eriksson. Since Backes and Nielsen are about to turn 32 and Eriksson will be 31 in the summer, term will be a huge point in contract talks. All three forwards can help the young Sabres in many ways on and off the ice.
The Colorado Avalanche were fighting for the second wild card down the stretch in the season but came up short to the Minnesota Wild. There is a lot to address with this team as they were 20th in offense, 24th in defense, 19th on the power play and 23rd on the penalty kill. So basically every area of the team needs to improve.
Colorado has 15 players signed for $52.6 million going into next season. If they could add another scorer as well as improve the blueline that would be ideal. Keep in mind the Avs have to sign RFAs Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie to new contracts.
I think it’s pretty clear the areas the Edmonton Oilers need to address. They need grit, leadership and help on the blueline. Edmonton has 18 players already signed for next season at $57.1 million. Two players who are free agents come July 1st that can help in all of the above are Milan Lucic and Jason Demers.
You can bet your bottom dollar that if Lucic hits the open market, Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli will look to bring his former player into the fold. Chiarelli knows from his days in Boston how valuable the Canadian power forward is to a team. Demers, who turns only 28 in June, would be a solid add to a team that needs to improve defensively.
Not only is the future very bright for the Florida Panthers in terms of young talent but they also are in great shape in terms of the salary cap as well. The Panthers have 16 players signed for next season at $47.3 million. Jaromir Jagr and Brian Campbell hit the open market this summer. Take it to the bank that Jagr will be back. Campbell will most likely be back on a short-term deal. Florida also has to sign talented youngsters Erik Gudbranson and Vincent Trocheck, both of whom are RFAs.
Florida is deep on the blueline, so the big off-season move needs to focus on a goal scorer. One could make the argument that the Panthers should go bold this summer and reel in the big fish and that of course is Mr. Steven Stamkos, who would not have to leave the state of Florida and could be the missing piece in terms of making the Panthers a Cup contender. Other players to watch regarding the Panthers are Kyle Okposo and Eriksson.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils only have $39.2 million committed to next season with 11 players already in the fold. Mark it down this franchise needs to go shopping for scoring forwards, as they finished last in the NHL this year averaging just 2.22 goals per game. I don’t think New Jersey has a shot at Stamkos even if they were willing to make such a move. However, the Devils should be all in on the other top free agent forwards. The Devils need to bring two scorers this off-season to the Garden state.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have 16 players signed for next season at $54.2 million. The Isles have two top-six forwards in Okposo and Nielsen who are poised to hit the open market. If New York fails to get past the first round of the playoffs yet again they could look to change the chemistry. In the past it has been rumored that the Isles have been interested in Lucic. Backes could also add leadership and greatly aid New York’s inconsistent power play.
New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo will likely hit the free agent market come July 1st.
Darren Dreger cites… https://t.co/17YaDfH2Xq
— Complete Hockey News (@CompleteHkyNews) March 9, 2016
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to enter their second off-season in their rebuilding plan. Toronto has 15 players signed for next season at $60.2 million. That is a little deceiving, as the Leafs can move Nathan Horton ($5.3 million cap hit) to long-term injury reserve and buyout Jared Cowen, which would result in a cap credit of $600,000. The biggest question for the Leafs is: Does GM Lou Lamoreillo make a tidal wave move this summer?
Given where Toronto currently stands the only big free agent that makes sense for them to go all in on is Stamkos. The Ontario native is only 26 and can lead this franchise for many years to come. Big question for me, will the 312 career goal scorer want to be under the intense microscope of the hockey universe?
Will Budget Teams Spend?
What will the off-season game plans be for the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes and Winnipeg Jets? All of these teams have plenty of cap space but will they be willing to spend or are they content on being slightly above the cap floor? Also, how many of the big free agents would consider these non-playoff teams?
Keep in mind in addition to free agency all these teams could explore the trade market as many teams are cap strapped and need to move players. It is expected after the players escrow vote the NHL cap ceiling will rise to $74 million next season. As always it should be a wild ride this off-season in the NHL.